Category Archives: Queenstown

The Southern Loop- Stewart Island and Milford Sound

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 The South is not so fun in the rain!

It’s the 9th Feb and another classic Stray early morning start- 7am with our new driver called Digger- to do the southern loop (Stewart Island- Milford Sound- Te Anau- Queenstown). From Queenstown we weaved our way through a stretch of road called the Devils Staircase and then through the Southland Plains- the flattest bit of land in NZ according to Digger. And then it was onto Bluff. It was rainy and dark outside and made the place look pretty bleak. Bluff is one of the oldest towns in NZ; established in 1823 it had 14 years of being a lawless rum filled whaling post before the Waitanga Treaty was signed. Bluff is also the location of the start/end of Highway 1 with Cape Reinga being the start/end in the North Island. So its pretty cool that we’ve been to both tips of Highway 1 which runs right down the centre of NZ’s 2 islands. We got to Bluff at 10.30am, ready for our 1 hour ferry across to Stewart Island at 11am. The weather was foul and we began to doubt the idea of going to the island which everything to do is ‘outdoors-ie’, but we got on the boat all the same! Our skipper told us a surprising, and scary, fact as we crossed the sea to Stewart Island…the waters hold the 3rd largest colony of Great White Sharks in the world after Oz and South Africa. So  that’s an obscure achievement which we can cross off our list at the end of this trip- visiting all 3! So why go to Stewart Island…85% of it is covered by the Rakiura National Park and so its a top destination for nature, in particular penguins and dolphins so we were still pretty excited to check that out. We checked into our hostel (Stewart Island Backpackers), put on our walking shoes and our waterproofs and headed straight out on a 3 1/2 hour walk of the coastline. After reaching Ackers Point, getting completely drenched and seeing absolutely no wildlife, let alone a penguin, we decided to cut the walk short and get a curly whirly from the local shop to have with  warm cuppa back at the hostel! It was less than 10 degrees for sure and so we wrapped up warm and sat drinking hot drinks in the hostel for the rest of the day. I devoured  whole book, 300 pages in one afternoon and evening whilst an older french man played classical piano pieces so beautifully the whole evening. A lovely, comfy, relaxing time. But not what we paid to come to Stewart Island for. A bit of a waste of money on reflection!

Next morning and time to take the ferry back to the mainland. The rain had stopped but it was still overcast and cold. But our destination for today was Milford Sound and as we got closer, travelling through Fiordland National Park, the sky cleared and the sun came out- hoorah! As we got close we had to go through Homer Tunnel which goes straight through the mountain for 1219m at a gradient of 10 to 1. So you really felt as if you were traveling to the centre of the earth! As Digger got onto the last bit of road to Milford Harbour we got our first sight of the sounds and it was a proper WOW moment. Very very beautiful and the water glistened in the sunshine. The mountain sides seem to jut out of the water at 90 degrees to the surface and the waters wraps and weaves around them. We were on the 15.00 scenic cruise with a company called Real Journeys. It was  big boat, too big really, with coach loads of people on it but we got a good point on the top deck to take in the scenery so we were okay. So some facts about Milford Sound…the first European to discover it was a sealer named John Gruno who was a Welshman from Milford Haven and thus named the area after his home town around 1820. While known as Milford Sound, it is really a Fiord as it is a flooded ice carved valley, not a flooded river valley which is what a Sound is. Silly European!

So started from the harbour wrapping around Mitre Peak, passing Sinbad Gully and Copper Point. Wind funnels through the area and at this point we had gusts of over 20 knots, but apparently it can get up to 100 knots of wind! 20 knots was windy enough for us! We then sailed out into the Tasman Sea, turned and then came back into the Sound passing Dale Point- the most northern entrance to Milford Sound. We saw sea lions on a rock and then it was onto Stirling Falls- 155m falls where the boat literally went right up close and Hedd and I who had moved to the bottom front deck got absolutely soaked by the spray! It was great fun! We returned to the top deck to dry off as we traveled past Mt Kimberley- also known as Lion Rock as it looks like a sitting lion (if you squint a bit!). Then we beared left into Harrison Cove where we had a spectacular view of the snow-capped Mt Pembroke. A very beautiful end to a great 2 hour cruise.

Before we knew it we were back on the Stray Bus, making our way to our base for the night at a place called Gunn’s Camp. It was originally a camp for the families of the Milford road and Homer tunnel builder’s in the 1930’s, with many children being brought up here. It was a tough existence- the camps in the middle of nowhere- but the community was known to make the best of things. After the tunnel was finished the families left and the camp was bought by Davy Gunn to run horse back holidays from it. Gunn was famous in the area, knowing the mountains like no other. He even has a mountain named after him. He tragically dies on his horse travelling across a river on Christmas Day and his son Murray took over and its been called Gunn’s Camp ever since. The place looks pretty much as it had done back in the day- little wooden or tin huts dotted about a river. We stayed in a hut called ‘Wanderer’. It is now powered by a generator that switches off at 10pm. The hot water if delivered by a wood fueled boiler and there is no fridge. Rural to say the least! And A LOT of sand flies- they are officially on Hedd and I’s hate list! But it was a fun place to stay for 1 night.

Next day (11th) and back to Queenstown. We stopped at Te Anau for lunch and Hedd and I used the time to go to the little cinema in the town to watch the locally famous Ata Whenau- Shadowland film. It’s an award-winning film of Fiordland filmed across extremes of season, climate and terrain all from the perspective of a helicopter. I really enjoyed it- the musical composition plus the images gave we goosebumps! A great thing to watch if your thinking of coming out for a visit. Then it was back on the bus to complete the remaining 2 1/2 hour journey back to Queenstown. On reflection I don’t know if I’d do the Southern Loop with Stray again- too much time on the bus. Perhaps a better idea would be to use Queenstown as a base and take day trips or overnight trips to Milford Sounds and Doubtful Sounds. Hmmm, next time!

The Southern Loop in a snapshot:

  • Weather= Lousy, with 1 great day of sunshine for the Milford Cruise
  • Food= Pasta with tomato sauce (tightening our purse strings!)
  • Drink= L&P!
  • Top tip= If you want to go to Stewart Island, spend at least 2 nights there- better chance of having a good weather day
  • If I were to come back I would do…= …A trip to Doubtful Sound

Hedd’s words of wisdom:

I don’t have many regrets from this trip so far, however not spending more time in the Fiordland National Park is one. In hindsight I think we shouldn’t have bothered with the Stray Southern Loop and hired a car for a few days from Queenstown and explored the area on our own in much more detail. I would have loved to have gone on a less commercial cruise through Doubtful Sound. But saying that, Milford Sound was beautiful and we didn’t have the time or money to do anything else. I guess we’ll just have to come back to do the rest…

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Queenstown- Routeburn and the Rest

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A toast to Queenstown’s magnetism and Routeburn’s Beauty…cheers!

After an early 6am start on the bus and stops along the way, including the mirrored Lake Matheson, Thunder Creek waterfall and the Blue Pools, we arrived in Queenstown late afternoon on the 31st January. It was our last day with Whales so we planned a big night out with him to say thanks, meeting at the famous Ferg Burger for dinner and then onto the bars. Now a bit about Ferg Burger- it was started by a local back in the day as a bakery to begin with as he felt you could never get good bread. Then he went onto gourmet burgers and its reputation is now global. Open 22 hours a day, 7 days a week and almost always packed with locals and travellers alike. And these burgers were big! As you can see from the pic and just as lovely as the reviews say they are. Then it was the big night out (haven’t had one of those in a while!) and we both enjoyed the 2 for 1 wristbands Stray got us. Plus there was a dance floor which I pretty much stayed on for most of the night!

Next day we just chilled and explored Queenstown. So a bit about Queenstown…it’s titled the adventure capital of NZ; hot in summer, freezing in winter- 2 ski fields really close by; it has a resident population of 20,000 people but a huge transient traveller population which doubles that figure and then some; its by a lake and surrounded by mountains. Hedd and I fell in love with it! So the 1st Feb was Hedd and I’s 18 months anniversary (awww) so we went out for lunch as a treat, walked the lakeside, and booked some crazy adventure stuff for us to do over our time here. Next day was bungy day and the day after was Hedd’s skydive- check out the blog post ‘Queenstown- the Adventurous Stuff’ for more about that. And after Hedd’s skydive it was time to get ready for our 2 night, 3 day tramp along the Routeburn Track the next day.

The Routeburn Tramp- 4th – 6th February

Day One

  • Distance= 8.8 km
  • Time= 4 1/2 hours
  • Scenery= Forest and Plains

We got picked up by the Tracknet bus at 8am to take us to the start point of the Routeburn track at the Routeburn Shelter in Mt Aspiring National Park. At 10am, from 600 m above sea level, we started making our way up through beech forest where we saw NZ’s smallest bird (like a tiny fat robin) called the Rifleman; along the Sugarloaf and Bridel Veil streams of gorgeous powder blue colour; and over lots of cool swing bridges. Walking with full packs was a a bit of a shock but we figured they could only get lighter as we ate more of our food supplies as the days went on (we forgot we still had to carry all our rubbish with us though!). We stopped for lunch at the first hut along the track called the Routeburn Flats Hut, where the warden called Liz was just finishing up cleaning after the overnight trampers. Oh a bit of context needed…The Routeburn is  one of the Department of Conservation’s ‘Great Walks’, which means that the track enjoys a higher standard of track maintenance and hut facilities. Each hut along the Great Walks tracks has a warden who works 8 days on, 6 days off (they walk in) and is responsible for maintaining the hut and the track that surrounds it. The huts along the Routeburn have gas, running water, flushing toilets and bunk beds. Luxury! So after the Flats hut, we walked over more swing bridges through more beech forest and got some ace views of the valley where a recent land slip had taken the trees down at the side of the path. We arrived at Routeburn Falls Hut at 2.30pm, claimed two beds and then boiled some water for a nice cup of tea with powdered milk (yuk!). The hut was in a fab location and had a big veranda overlooking the valley and a small waterfall behind it. We cooked up filled pasta and sauce for tea and ate from the pan. We met our warden called Keith at ‘Hut Talk’ at 7.30pm and he talked us through hut safety, etiquette etc; which all seemed pretty pointless as we’d been here since 2.30pm and had used all the facilities and were just about to go to bed! And that’s just what we did.

Day Two

  • Distance= 11.3 km
  • Time= 6 1/2 hours
  • Scenery= Stunning snow-capped mountains and alpine lakes

After a surprisingly good nights sleep, considering we were sharing the room with 26 other people, a cuppa and a cereal bar, we were ready for day 2- our longest day and steepest incline for walking. We set off at 8am for the steady climb up the Harris Saddle. It was tough going but we hardly felt our packs or the ache in our legs because our minds were captivated by the landscape and views that surrounded us. Behind us as we climbed was the Routeburn Valley, Lake Harris came into view on our right and the snow topped Darran Mountains were to the front of us. It really was spectacular and bathed in the morning light too- magnificent! We did the climb at good pace too, getting to the top and the highest point of the Routeburn track (1255 m) within 1 1/5 hours. However as we got to the Harris Saddle Shelter the fog set in, with the wind blowing moments of clarity and disguise with the fog in equal measure. We could see the top of the mountain behind the shelter so we dumped our bags in the shelter and decided to do the side trip up Conical Hill, hoping the fog would clear some more by the time we got to the top. It was a tough old climb/ scramble up a very steep side for 45 minutes, the majority of which we were walking through fog and thought ourselves bonkers! But then we reached the top and the sky was blue, sun was out and the views were spectacular. From the top we had a superb view of the Hollyford Valley through to Martins Bay at the coast and the Tasman Sea. It was fantastic. After 30 mins or so we made the scrabble/slide back down to the Shelter again, had some lunch, retrieved our bags and continues the walk towards Lake MacKenzie Hut where we were staying that night. We were now in Fiordland National Park and the track seemed to go on forever now and after the excitement of the Harris Saddle and Conical Hill, a rocky path slowly going downhill was a bt boring! But we kept on spying the view along Hollyford Valley to the Sea which was lovely and eventually we got our first sight of Lake MacKenzie. It looked so close but we soon realised we had a way to go as we zigzagged back and forth down the slope to get to it. The last bit of the walk was through bush land- moss-covered trees and leafy paths. Looked all very mystical and Hedd and I had a few Lord of the Rings moments! Eventually we caught sight of our hut, arriving again at 2.30pm. Lake MacKenzie was pretty but not as spectacular as Lake Harris but we got to paddle in this one which was fun but freezing! After a relax we went off to explore more of the lake and went to a place called Split Rock which was exactly that a Split Rock. And then came back to the hut and chatted to our group of tramp buddies who we had shared the bus with by the lake. We sat and had dinner with them too (filled pasta and sauce again!), and waited for our Hut Talk with our warden. This one was called Clive and this was his 17th season as Lake MacKenzie Hut Warden and he was a complete nutter! He went on for 1 1/2 hours telling stories that didn’t really make sense. He finally let us go to bed at 9.15pm with a cryptic warning about possums. But I was too tired to work it out so just went to sleep and hoped not to need to go to the loo in the night!

Day Three

  •  Distance= 12 km
  • Time= 5 1/2 hours
  • Scenery= Forest and alpine wetland

Our last day of the tramp and we were up and out on the track by 8am again. We crossed a small flat before climbing steeply to the bush line over steps of tree roots and rock. And I thought it was all downhill today! Where the trees parted a little we were afforded with a view of the Hollyford Valley out to the Tasman sea with a mystical hanging of mist that gave it a very different character to the same view we saw yesterday. It was quite beautiful. We passed an area called the Orchard which is a natural clearing enclosing Ribbonwoods resembling fruit trees, and then we hit Earland Falls. Wow that’s a big waterfall! 174 m and the path took you right up close to it. You soon felt wet from the spray but it did a perfect job of cooling us down. We then made the gradual descent to Lake Howden Hut- our lunch stop. I took of my shoes and padded about in my socks enjoying the sunshine at the hut. Although th sandflies were out and causing their usual annoyance! As we were there 2 boys walked past with the hind legs of a deer around their necks. They had obviously gone hunting and this was some sort of hunting trophy display- they certainly looked pleased with themselves but I thought it just looked grotesque. After being put off having anymore food, we set off again up hill towards the Key Summit Track turn off. We dumped our bags by the sign and took our remaining lunch to have at the top. A steep zig zag path up through the bush-line took us to the alpine wetland where you get a view of 3 major river systems. There was a 30 minute nature walk around the top, so we took the information card and wandered around finding the various pegs to read about. We had our sandwiches at the view-point overlooking Lake Marian. We had great views of the Darran Mts and Hollyford Valley. But really nothing that we hadn’t seen before on Day 2 so we completed the nature trail and headed back down to the main track. Last little bit now- down hill through Silver Beech forest. The sound of the Milford Highway was getting louder and we arrived at the Divide Shelter- the end point of the track and the lowest crossing point of the Southern Alps- at 1.42pm. I know the precise time as Craig one of our friends from the bus was clocking everyone in in his diary! We bantered with the group (5 from California and 2 from Stockport) until the bus came at 3.15pm to pick us up. It was a 3 1/2 hour haul back to Queenstown (I slept most of the way!) and we arrived at 7.45pm, just enough time to get a shower and a celebratory Ferg Burger and cider before crashing into bed. Phew we had done it!

So back in the adventure capital of NZ and on the 7th Hedd did some white water rafting and the next day we both did Mad Dog River Boarding (check out the blog post titled ‘Queenstown- the adventurous stuff for more on that). For our last afternoon in Queenstown we found 1/2 price wine tasting on a website bookme.co.nz. The place was called Wine Tastes and you can taste over 80 NZ wines. You get a card which is loaded with money and you can pick any of the wine to have a taste, 1/2 glass or full glass of. It’s really quite clever. So we got there at 3pm and left at 4pm after trying 8 different wines and enjoying a 1/2 glass of our favourites. We found they had a free tasting session of 6 wines at 5pm so we hopped home for a piece of toast and then was back to try them! Cheapest drinking session we’ve had in NZ and a good way to say bye to our extended stay in the captivating township of Queenstown.

Queenstown and Routeburn in a snapshot:

  • Weather= Queenstown on the whole sunny; Routeburn a mix of sun and cloud
  • Food= the mighty Ferg Burger!
  • Drink= Milo on the Routeburn and Wine in Queenstown
  • Definitely check out= http://www.bookme.co.nz to save some money on Queenstown’s (expensive) activities
  • Definitely on the Routeburn you should= walk Conical Hill and slap on ‘Goodbye Sandfly’ lotion whenever you stop!

Hedd’s words of wisdom:

At the end of Day 1, the ranger told us there would be no point going up Conical Hill if it was foggy and not to bother if we couldn’t see the top. Now you should probably listen to the rangers 99% of the time, but I’m glad we didn’t. When we started our side trip up Conical Hill, the fog didn’t look that bad, but we couldn’t see the top , however I was convinced it would clear by the time we got to the top. I was still convinced half way up when we could only see a few yards in front of us and one old lady turned around complaining that it wasn’t worth it as she couldn’t see anything. But we perservered and got our reward. When we got near the top, the fog started to clear and we could start to see the mountains and sky again, but nothing prepared us for the sight ahead. Over the last few rocks, we emerged on the top of the hill and stared in amazement at the snow-capped mountains right in front of us, the valleys to the left and the Tasman sea far off to the right. This was the highlight of the three-day tramp for me, it was stunning and it we would have never seen it had we listened to the ranger…